In Depth

The fog of war reporting: how the truth gets lost in Ukraine

If Crimea is re-annexed to Moscow, the numbers fleeing could create a humanitarian crisis

Robert Fox

THE FOG enveloping Kiev for much of this week has proved a gift of a metaphor for the script and cliché writers of the international media now camped out there. Of all the Carl Von Clausewitz concepts, the notion of the fog of war is about the most abused and misused.

Behind the fog of diplomacy and journalism now blanketing Ukraine and all points east, there is a tangle of fact, half-truth, myth and real and deepening fears. Surely, it is time to puncture the clichés – whether from Vladimir Putin's Greater Russia script, or the empty threats and promises of the EU leadership – and get into talking realities, before the fear explodes into even more violence, and even full-scale war.

There is an awful lot being lost in translation, literally, in the reports now hitting our screens. The loss is not just in language, but in the lack of understanding of the extraordinary ethnic and political complexity of the crisis.      

Among the best corrective reality checks have been the contributions from local academics and intellectuals in the opinion pages of the New York Times – pieces from the city of Lviv in the west of Ukraine, from the Crimea, and from Moscow itself.

Olga Dukhnich, a political scientist writing from Simferopol in the Crimea, seeks to dispel the myth that the majority of her Russian neighbours yearn to throw off the ‘fascist’ yoke of Kiev to be ruled by Moscow instead.

“I am an ethnic Ukrainian (and native speaker of Ukrainian and Russian) but I live and work alongside many ethnic Russians. They never asked for a Russian invasion and do not need the 'protection' that is being offered."

It is true, says Dukhnich, that Russians in Crimea and in southeastern Ukraine were angered by the "clumsy and reckless law" removing Russian as one of the two national languages of Ukraine. But this was a law passed in the heat of Yanukovych's overthrow and the interim government in Kiev has already rescinded it.

The Crimean parliament may have voted to join Russia, but according to Dukhnich the Crimean MPs are not as representative as they claim, while even ethnic Russians in Crimea fear Moscow. The referendum now slated for 16 March could be the trigger for more serious trouble than anything seen yet.

If Crimea is detached and re-annexed to Russia, all sides lose, Dukhnich argues. Crimea needs Ukraine for electricity, grain and tourism. And what Russia does not need is the humanitarian crisis that will doubtless ensue as Crimea refugees seek to escape into the rest of Ukraine or abroad – a disaster that would surely "backfire on Mr. Putin’s regime back home".

Even more fascinating is the despatch from Natalka Sniadanko, a journalist in Lviv in the west of Ukraine. Fluent in German and Polish, she has been interpreting for German Green party activists and journalists reporting on the crisis.

“I was appalled," writes Sniadanko, "to hear what many Germans thought of the Maidan protests in Kiev – that they were nationalist extremists and anti-Semites, and that all those victims they had heard about were merely collateral damage in a legitimate government attempt to stabilise the situation. In other words the Moscow line.”

One of those pushing the Moscow line this week was a Russian academic ranting at Matt Frei on Channel 4 News that he knew "for a fact" that the killings in Kiev's Maidan square were the work of agents provocateurs in the pay of the protesters to create martyrs in their ranks.

He also "knew" – again, for a fact - that they were now backed up by sharpshooters from the US Blackwater private security company.

Frei, broadcasting live from Maidan square, was stunned by the tirade of mangled fact and paranoia from Moscow. But what he missed was this: in such a fevered atmosphere the wraiths and myths of historical paranoia quickly become facts in their own right – and drive extreme actions.

The problem, as Natalka Sniadanko gently stresses, is that Ukraine has suffered from too much history. Since 1654 it has been pulled to bits by Lithuania, Poland, Russia, France and Germany. In the last hundred years there has been a cycle of disruption, starvation, liquidation, expulsion, massacre and oppression from both Nazi and Soviet empires.

And what of those who get left out, or left behind? The only indigenous population group of the Crimean peninsula - the Tatars - were only allowed back in 1954 after Stalin’s purges and enforced exile. I have not heard President Putin refer to their existence, let alone their rights to self-determination.

As Sniadanko so elegantly pitches it, “Those myths are collapsing; that is what the protests of 2014 were all about. Both western and eastern camps had a chance of ruling, and both failed. In doing so, they showed Ukrainians that the challenge was not between region or another, but between the corrupt at the top and the people, whatever region they are from.”

Reactions from the West have been mixed. Obama has been playing a poker hand, in the knowledge that with American oil shale he can always drive down the world price for gas and threaten meltdown for the share price of Gazprom, which Putin wouldn’t survive.

Sympathy must go to Chancellor Merkel, who has more experience of reality on the eastern marches of Europe than the rest of the western leadership together. Naturally concerned about German and EU dependence on Putin’s gas, she has lately wondered openly about what planet the Russian leader is living upon.

Almost beyond caricature is the posturing of David Cameron and his government. The briefing note caught by the eagle-lensed photographer in Downing Street said it all: there should be no sanctions on Russian investors currently pouring billions of dollars worth of funds, some distinctly dodgy, into the City of London. From Napoleon’s nation of shopkeepers, the British are now ruled by the norms and ethics of hedge funders.

“How many divisions has the Pope?” Joe Stalin famously remarked. The problem for Britain is that it can no longer back its soft power and negotiations with the threat of hard power - the essence of diplomacy since it was invented in the modern form in the era of Machiavelli.

This week's Commons Defence Committee report on how the Cameron government is running down the Army means Britain's voice on Ukraine has less credibility and substance than the Cheshire Cat’s smile in Alice in Wonderland.

If you apply Stalin’s question of "how many divisions" to the forces of Her Britannic Majesty, the answer would currently be one-and-a-half. But it could well be below one by the time we get anywhere near the resolution of Ukraine’s crisis.

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